The Blog Squad

Monday, December 12, 2005

Do you have some more to say about the Johnson story? Here's your chance

From the number of comments I continue to get on the Johnson post from last week, it's obvious you all still have a lot to say on this topic. So maybe we should take it apart piece by piece starting with my good friend Anonymous' point about public vs. private life. I called Johnson's action stupid. He called it stupid. Some of you took offense to that but the question remains: Must a person in Johnson's position — an elected official — sacrifice the right to certain private behaviors if he or she wants to pursue a life of public service? If corporations and entertainment enterprises can include morals clauses in employee contracts, why can't the public, so to speak? Or does every American have absolute right to privacy in behavior that is completely legal?
(Next, we'll take on how the gay aspect affected the story and Times-Dispatch's role in all this, but for now, one thing at a time...)


At Mon Dec 12, 08:04:00 PM EST, Blogger Wulf said...

Hey, I'll start. Anonymous said Johnson was not doing anything illegal nor did it have anything to do with his job performance. The point is...

The point is that the school board would not have had this kind of reaction to a teacher doing the same thing, even though it is not illegal and even if it did not affect the teacher's performace. It is hypocritical and indefensible for them to hold the teachers to a standard of behavior that they find impossible for themselves.

Since Anonymous brought up Bill Clinton, I will note that this is exactly the problem I had with his oral sexcapades. I don't care that he had an extramarital affair - I really don't - but as commander in chief he engaged in behavior that would have resulted in severe punishment for most government employees. Having sex with an intern who was the age of your daughter? While your daughter is a few rooms away? I don't care about the morality of the act itself so much as the reaction Clinton would have had if I, much lower on the federal payrolls, had been in the same situation. I doubt he or the Democrats would have defended me.

Politicians (in both parties) get a pass from each other and from their most blindly loyal backers, for behavior that really ought not to be accepted. If Johnson feels his behavior is defensible, he should defend it, and should not have resigned as chairman. If he feels it was stupid, but that he still deserves a second chance, then he should be willing to forgive this type of behavior of all employees of RPS. As I said before, I await that with bated breath.

At Mon Dec 12, 08:14:00 PM EST, Blogger Wulf said...

And lest I be accused of straying off topic, I think if you have any expectation of privacy, you should keep yourself out of the public eye. That's the lesson Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Stephen Johnson and countless others have learned from their scandals. If you are a public figure and there is some aspect of your life about which you would be ashamed, you are asking for trouble. Especially if your behavior is something you wouldn't publicly defend in others.

The public's interest in scandal is basically the moral clause of which Janet speaks.

If you don't think it should be that way, well, I think there should be world peace. But that's not how it is, and it's stupid to behave otherwise.

At Tue Dec 13, 08:03:00 AM EST, Blogger John said...

An interesting quasi-debate -- Where do you draw the line? And, who gets to draw the line?

Since there is no written moral code governing the private behavior of elected officials, there are really three entities at play in this debate: Johnson, the School Board and the voters. Each has choices to make in this conversation, and each has opportunities to make demands or put a stake in the ground.

I would suggest that Johnson's private life is fair game -- for the media, for the voters, for the general public outside of his district. I'm not sure I believe the Times-Dispatch exercised good judgment in this story, but a serious argument can be made -- and I suspect was made in the newsroom -- that the head of the School Board searching for explicit sex in a public space is news. While it is different than past scandals -- House of Delegates members nabbed getting blowjobs on Pumphouse Road a decade ago or more violated solicitation laws -- Johnson had to recognize (or surely does now) that he was in a public space (the Internet).

Now that the cat is out of the bag, people will go after Johnson for different things -- his lack of judgment, the fact that he might be gay, he looks ridiculous in that shirtless photo. That's the perogative of the public: the freedom to pick on people for just about anything this side of slander. And when push comes to shove, there will be an election in Johnson's future. That's when his detractors will have to put up or shut up, and when the community gets to weigh in.

The School Board, on the other hand, probably has to ask some serious questions about standards of behavior for Board members and school officials. Fortunately, they've never demonstrated the ability to seriously focus on issues before, so I doubt they'll do much this time. At least nothing that will keep the next city official from doing or saying something idiotic.

And Johnson simply needs to decide whether he can continue to be a good representative for the families in his district.

At Tue Dec 13, 11:32:00 AM EST, Blogger Greg Weatherford said...

Sorry, Wulf, et al. You can't make something a moral failing just by saying it is.

The legal posting of a legal message in a specifically targeted web site by an unmarried man is not news, nor is it a criminal or unethical act. The fact that Johnson didn't kowtow to the opinion of some that what he was doing is shameful may reveal some naivete on Johnson's part, but it doesn't make what he did wrong. Who was harmed? Where's the crime?

The School Board would not have had this reaction to a teacher -- you're right, Wulf. But I would argue that the board shouldn't have that reaction to anyone who did what Johnson did.

It's not the government's job to police the legal private affairs of its employees or its representatives. Nor is it the media's job to present those acts as dramatic public scandals. It's the shock and dismay of those institutions that are embarrassing.

At Tue Dec 13, 04:39:00 PM EST, Blogger Wulf said...

I would argue that the board shouldn't have that reaction to anyone who did what Johnson did.
I would be happy with that. But in lieu of that, I expect consistency of policy. Johnson in particular was wrong to engage in behavior that he would not accept from others in RPS.

Nor is it the media's job to present those acts as dramatic public scandals.
This I will have to disagree with. If that's what sells papers, then that is exactly their job. Supply and demand!

At Tue Dec 13, 06:05:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i completely agree greg.

At Wed Dec 14, 11:20:00 AM EST, Blogger Janet Giampietro said...

wulf, has anyone ever told you you look exactly like matthew broderick?....

At Wed Dec 14, 01:58:00 PM EST, Blogger Greg Weatherford said...

If that's what sells papers, then that is exactly their job. Supply and demand!

If that's all journalism was, every newspaper would print only porn and astrology columns. Newspapers' job is to sort and filter the news based on many things - including public interest - but also including its effect on society and the people involved.

At Wed Dec 14, 08:28:00 PM EST, Blogger Wulf said...

If that's all journalism was, every newspaper would print only porn and astrology columns.

Hrm. While this may be an interesting insight to what drives you to purchase a paper, it isn't what drives most sales. You refer to the "job" of the newspapers, Greg. They have a "job"? Who exactly employs the paper? They work for the customer, just like any other for-profit organization. It's just market forces. For-profit papers print "public interest" stories because there is a demand from consumers - it's still about their bottom line. They don't do it out of conscience. You might feel that's cynical or something, but it's true. Ask Punchline.

Porn sells, yes. So does astrology, sure. But there is a market for a paper that doesn't emphasize either of those, and instead focuses on whatever crap we see in TD on a daily basis. Why people want it, I don't really know... but ask their marketing department what would happen if they only ran porn and astrology. Belly up. It's not their audience.

At Thu Dec 15, 01:56:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again I agree with Greg and I'm wondering why you dodged the Broderick connection? hmmm...
The job of journalists - and yes, it is a job, is to make editorial decisions about content and not simply what will sell the most papers. Not everything is based upon the free market concept.

At Thu Dec 15, 09:01:00 PM EST, Blogger Wulf said...

Anon, I don't know why you believe that journalists should act that way, but as I said before, well, I think there should be world peace.

As for the Broderick question, I get that a lot. And we have never been seen in the same place at the same time...

At Fri Dec 16, 02:50:00 PM EST, Blogger Greg Weatherford said...

Wulf -
Ad hominem attacks don't count.

At Fri Dec 16, 02:54:00 PM EST, Blogger Greg Weatherford said...

Wulf .. Since you asked ..

Media's job is to reflect the world as it is to its citizens -- that is, its readers. That's why it's the only industry specifically protected by the Constitution from government interference.

Because of that special status, a newspaper -- or TV news show, radio program, whatever -- has a profound responsibility to think through the things it prints, at least as much as deadline pressures and timeliness allow, and to keep in mind the effects of its publication on others.

In this case, in my view, the T-D failed its readers by punting on its responsibility to think it through. Others disagree.

At Fri Dec 16, 07:34:00 PM EST, Blogger Wulf said...

greg, the TD engaged in some level of sensationalism and irresponsibility when printing the story. They smeared a man, and I do suspect that if he were straight it wouldn't have happened, or at least not in the same way. Contrary to your first comment here, I never claimed it was a moral failing on SJ's part to report on that personal ad. That's simply never been my view. You say ad hominem attacks do not count - but do straw men?

I agreed when you said It's not the government's job to police the legal private affairs of its employees or its representatives. And on top of that, it is hypocritical for government employees to cry "privacy" when they suddenly become the policed, instead of the policer.

I only disagreed when you said Nor is it the media's job to present those acts as dramatic public scandals. At a for-profit paper, it is their job to sell papers by reporting the news that will interest newspaper readers. If they can do it in a responsible way, then they fill the demand for responsible reporting. But if they have to do it in a sleazy way, then they are simply filling a different demand. Some journalists print dirty scandals, and are paid for it. That makes it their job, greg, whether it is the noble job you want them to do, or not.

As I have said from the get-go, if Johnson felt his behavior was defensible, he should defend it, and should not have resigned as chairman. I would have supported that. But he doesn't seem to feel his behavior really is defensible - it's just deserving of a second chance. As a public figure, especially one in any level of education, SJ should have been more careful about any of his private behaviors that he would not want made public. He should have asked himself, "What harm can it do to my reputation?" It's stupid for any public figure to do otherwise.

You say the T-D failed its readers by punting on its responsibility to think it through before smearing SJ over his private life. I say the T-D printed the story at least in part because they thought it would sell, because scandals often do sell. Especially ones that can use the words "gay" and "school" in the same sentence. It shouldn't be that way, but until readers really show that they don't want this kind of story, the paper will continue to print it.

And now back to the "ad hominem attack". It was not meant as an attack, and it certainly was not presented by me as evidence of your position being wrong. I simply found it to be a great leap of logic to assume that a media governed by pure market forces would only carry porn and astrology. On one hand, publication and media is actually governed by market forces of supply and demand, and porn and astrology are huge, so your argument is somewhat supported. But on the other hand, they obviously aren't the only things in demand - look at all of the publications that focus on other topics, like the ones you are actually interested in.

I am sorry you took it personally the way I chose to word that point. No hard feelings?


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